Ed. note: Jim was inspired to write this piece after Lynn Osborne Bobbitt, Riverwalk Jazz Director of Development, discovered two photos of unknown origin in the collection of her late father, Robert Jean Osborne, who had been a photographer for the San Antonio Light for 30 years. Lynn brought the photos over to Jim's house. They triggered a flood of memories.
When the jazz band started my father proclaimed it: “The Happy Jazz Band.” He said, “The music is supposed to be happy music. It’s supposed to make you feel good.” So off we went in pursuit of musical happiness. Mostly, we found it. That was in 1962.
I look back on the sweep of all the years—all the versions of the band, all the music, the people, night after night of it. And, all of it so charmed by the beauty of the River Walk. Maybe the most special times were those years just after our “big bang” beginning.
Sometimes that original Happy Jazz Band could really get it going. A critical key was Benny Valfre and his old Bacon and Day banjo. Benny played with such a sense of swing and so well in tune that it was pretty to hear.
The banjo, considered a noisy musical monster by many jazz players, was, in Benny’s hands, so pleasing. The “human metronome,” I called him. He was quite an artist, and, except for his steadiness, should not have been compared to a metronome at all. He would pull just ahead of the beat and drive the band. Mostly, his attack was a tiny, imperceptible mini-fraction on top. Benny knew the correct chord changes to thousand of tunes. How he had learned all that music was a mystery. He taught himself, he said. We didn’t question.
When we kicked off that first night at the old Landing, April 18, 1963, I was pinching myself. Could this really be happening? I was 21 and a half years old, going to college and struggling with my lip.
I couldn’t wait to get down there. It was a thrill just to walk into the place. I would step off the River Walk, behind a beautiful old railing of wrought iron lace work, though the antique, giant front door and survey the scene. At 7:30 the place would already be half full. Usually that early crowd was smiling, happy and anxious to hear the band.
White walls and pillars set off red lights, red table cloths, red waiters jackets. It was loud in there and smoky.
Willson Davis, the sousaphone player, having warmed up, would be stretched out on five of the Landing’s little chairs. Already on the stand, Benny would be fine tuning the banjo. He worked on that for 10 minutes every night before we started.
“Gotta be right up on the pitch,” he would say.
All of the guys would be waiting for the start. Gradually, sort of casually, they would get up there, like horses into the gate, I’d think.
“Call a tune, let’s go!”
I would half turn to them. “Ok, ‘Fidgety Feet,’” and bam, there we would go blowing pretty loud in that loud place.
“Jelly Roll Blues,” I would call, and we would get after that. Another hot tune and I would squint at the crowd. Now the little room would be almost full.
“They will be standing in line in another 10 minutes.”
Those nights were fun—serious fun! My sharp memories are clear as snapshots:
A man is standing on a table with a whiskey bottle in his hand; he dances a little and falls, but they catch him.
“Copenhagen,” I call. We hit it pretty hard. The crowd roars!
Waiters thread through the little tables with trays of beer and tubs of ice. The people pour their own drinks—stiff drinks. They get loud, too.
“Gotta get outside for ten minutes,” I think, “the smoke is really stinging my eyes.”
Benny is back there kicking it. We sit in chairs and stand up for the last few ensembles. The trombone is wailing right next to me and some guy bellows in my ear, “Better than Lu Watters!” he yells.
“Nah,” I yell back, “Never!”
People, so into the music, are dancing between the tables. I watch them, and a couple of times a woman, cheered on, starts taking off her clothes. They never really strip down. Nobody is arrested!
There are several memory shots of people jumping into the river. In one picture The Landing has four student waiters. The school year has ended, and it is their last night. The crowd gets up and moves outside and cheers as the four waiters, in their short red jackets, stand abreast, and with trays holding full pitchers of beer, march off together into the River.
The crowds pack into that little space, 200 strong, and all of the chairs and tables are jammed in there, too. The Landing is the “in place.” It goes on that way for the first few years. Then it’s not quite so “cool” — not quite so fascinating. It seems about the same, but seldom is there a line.
Gag after gag—every musician’s joke—so many corny jokes for the crowd.
But the band keeps on. I am learning the classics: “Milneberg Joys,” “That’s a Plenty”—even Bix exotics like “Ostrich Walk” and “Susie.” We play “Panama” with all its five strains.
By the fourth set my lip is slowing down. The band is bearing down.
Play, play! It gets louder.
The old State liquor laws have us stopping at midnight (1:00 AM on Saturdays).
The “Saints,” always the last piece, is on and the whole crowd gets up and starts making a serpent line between the tables. They are into it. They are up and across the stage—two steps up and they are coming across. One lady makes it and on the far side, instead of stepping down, she stops momentarily, and then falls. It is a belly flop—down from the edge of the stage onto the cement floor, and I am standing there out of the way, and I see her going. I try to grab for her and miss. She hits the floor hard. Splat!
I think, “Oh no! She’s killed herself!” Somehow however, she gets right up, and keeps dancing.
We are really blowing hard. Here come the key changes to A-flat, then to B-flat. Oh my lip!
It flits through my mind, “Save a little—got to make it to the end!”
“Hey, let’s go! It’s the last chorus!” I am thinking, “More air, more air!” Here comes the ending. I make it—bang a high C. The cymbal crashes short, and the band’s sound evaporates. Whew! There is a three second pause, then two big booms on the bass drum set the tempo for the closing theme, Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues.” It’s slow—softer and haunting.
The trombone man, Gene McKinney, says “End on a high F. I’ll cover you if you miss it.”
I shake my head. “Forget it, Man,” and it will be years before I start ending on F.
Its over! A couple of people call for an encore, but we ignore them, responding only with smiles.
I bob and weave over to the bar and slap down 75 cents.“Gimme a beer,” I say as the people start to stagger out. The beer is really good and cold. It goes right down.
With waves and farewells I am outside, moving along the River Walk and up the flight to the street. Strong as I am at 21, I feel so spent, I have to push to make it. I grip the handle of the cornet case. “Where’s my second wind?”
Usually it comes, and I make it to one of the all-night restaurants: the Chinese joint on West Commerce, or one of the Mexican places—Casa Blanca, Mario’s, Mi Tierra, The Pan American.
The guys arrive with their usual cry: “Menudo for everybody!”
“Not me! I can’t stand the stuff.” All of them lap it up.
They advise, “You won’t ever have a hangover if you finish with menudo. There’s pepsin in the tripe!”
“Boy, you guys were really hot tonight,” I say.
One or two return the compliment: “Yeah Kid, you did pretty well yourself.”
I am thinking, “I don’t know. But, tomorrow I will try it again. Maybe I am doing better. Got to practice more.”
Somebody says, “Jazz is like pinball—if you do well you get to try again. See you tomorrow night.”
Pinball? But they are right in a way. The performance is a bit of a game of chance. Fortunately, I get plenty of tries.
Again and again my “snapshots” remind me: what times, such high living, those characters, what joi de vivre.
A sound track comes with the pictures, too: from across the years, I can so clearly hear my father’s clarinet tone—so rich, so distinctive that I could still identify him by the sound alone and pick him out of a group of 1,000 clarinetists!
Somehow our jazz band universe continues to expand in the echo of the original Landing’s big bang. There now have been thousands of nights, millions of notes—45 years of non-stop jazz.
Lots of snapshots, lots of pinball!
© 2007 Jim Cullum, Jr.